The New Alexandria

Here's a little story I tell myself, of very dubious relationship to actual history but through which I understand myself and my own time in philosophy. It's related to the habit (no doubt grounded in some real similarities) people have of describing analytic philosophy as a basically scholastic enterprise. Now, people do not generally mean this as a positive but rather to suggest that analytic philosophy has become (or maybe was from its inception) an exercise in debate for debate's sake, or building castles in the sky.

The thought for those who say such things in their most polemical sense is that Scholasticism developed an intricate set of conceptual distinctions and theoretically organised propositions for one to learn, spurred debates about their precise interpretations and interrelations, and... never actually explained anything. Its whole way of approaching the world was divorced from contact with its actual problems, its theories superficial for all their intricacies, and the intellectual energy spent upon it near entirely wasted. For all the rigour brought to the table what is actually being debated amounts to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The parallels to analytic philosophy are supposed to be obvious.

Now I do believe contemporary Anglophone analytic is in trouble. And I was very recently pointed towards this essay by a continental philosopher critiquing Anglophone continental philosophy in a somewhat similar vein. This latter essay seems to hold out the hope that maybe black or decolonial thought is doing better - but at least as regards to academics especially interested in the US aspects of this see the section on PoC intelligentsia in here for my thoughts on that. So I would probably extend my pessimism out a bit more generally to cover all of Anglophone philosophy.

But for all this - in fact maybe even because of its generality - I do not think a degenerated scholasticism is the right historical metaphor for our time and era. I think late antiquity Hellenistic philosophy is where we should see ourselves. For concreteness' sake let's say 3rd and 4th century A.D. Alexandria in particular is where we should see ourselves. So here is my fabled understanding of the time and place.

Going into the third century A.D. Marcus Aurelius - the man history would come to know as the last good emperor - had been dead for twenty years. (Claudius Ptolemy, one of Alexandria's best scientific minds, had died just ten years before Aurelius). Twenty years is plenty of time to get a sense that things had changed for the worse. Three emperors had been assassinated between then and now, and the chap currently in charge was converting Rome into a despotic military state. Alexandria was and remained an international hub of commerce and learning, but it was now embedded within a political and social structure that showed clear signs of turning for the worse while still being close enough to its glory days for a legitimate hope of righting course to remain in the air.

The intellectual scene in Alexandria reflected the diversity of its population. Illustrative for my purposes is that the prophet Mani had recently spread his message, and despite persecution Manicheanism spread into Egypt including Alexandria. Per the wikipedia article Manicheanism takes it that "Mani is the final prophet after Zoroaster, Gautama Buddha, and Jesus." That is to say, it attempts to reconcile various popular religious movement by generating a theology and accompanying ethical practice that would explain how they could all be true simultaneously and how their precepts could all be honoured.

In this the Manicheans were very much of their age and place. The earlier texts of the Hermetica seem to have been attempts by Egyptian intelligentsia to syncretise their beliefs with Hellenistic Pagan and Jewish sources, familiar to them from such cultural mixing pots as Alexandria. The most famous philosophical resident of Alexandria in this era, Plotnius, is often seen as someone trying to formulate a Platonic form of Pagan orthodoxy that might stand up against such challenge as upstart Christian sects and insufficiently pious Stoics.

So we have the ferment caused by a growing sense of political decline, new proselytising religious groups shaking up the social order confronting orthodoxies that people felt had lost their way, a native intelligentsia trying to reassert their intellectual autonomy, and a sophisticated syncretic neo-orthodoxy movement starting to form. And the best and brightest of the era tended to try not so much to defeat their rivals as show how they could be incorporated into a more complete worldview of their own preferred sort. And indeed what of the intellectual output of Alexandria that would live on beyond this era was largely through later thinkers pulling the same trick on them - St. Augustine incorporating the best of what he took from the Stoics and Plotinus, or the incorporation of Ptolemaic system of astronomy into a Christianised Aristotle.

This syncretic age was clearly one of great intellectual creativity. Alexandria was a legitimate hub of leading scientific activity - it could boast an illustrious history that not only had Ptolemy in its recent past but Euclid more distantly and Hypatia still to look forward to. Its thinkers were responsive to the great social movements of its age, and propagated their results into the distant future through the syncretic style practiced and perfected there. Analytical philosophers, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any pre-Frege intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct neo-Platonist. 

Yet, for all this, very few contemporary philosophers care to read much of the intellectual production of this era, and whatever influence lingers does not inspire interest in tracing it to this great port city in this tumultuous era. Because here is the thing about syncretic eras -- they are only as interesting as the things being syncretised. For all the ingenuity Plotinus displayed there is simply little interest among contemporary philosophers in rationalising Hellenic paganism. Manicheanism as a religion is either extinct or nearly so. And while Christianity and Buddhism and Zoroastrianism are all still going concerns, there are very very few people so positioned that what might come from reconciling them is of interest, so the cultural pull Mani was responding to is no longer felt. The synthesis that would eventually come of Aristotle's science, Euclid's geometry, Ptolemy's astronomy, and Christian theology - the Scholasticism we started with - gets some precursor in St. Augustine's works and its elements (ha!) are here in Alexandria, but nowadays the scientific elements of this are all in their own ways outdated. Syncretism, and places and periods in which syncretism is the primary activity, can only have interest to those who feel attracted to the elements it is composed of separately, and thus can truly appreciate the achievement of reconciling them.

(I will not dwell on the point here but -- if you find it plausible that the pessimistic meta-induction refutes scientific realism, and if your syncretic fusion includes elements of contemporary science, this means the shelf-life of any syncretic philosophy is inevitably rather limited.)

This is where I believe we are in analytic philosophy. Contrary to the scholastic charge analytic philosophy is not really characterised by formalised debates around niche propositions got from pernickety yet rigorous deductions from esoteric and ultimately pointless theories. For one thing I think the rigour of analytic deductions is much overstated. For another it just misses what has been apparent about analytic philosophy for a number of years, it is an outdated stereotype of the field from a time (perhaps in its recent past, late 20th century for instance) when the field was quite insular and self-satisfied. But nowadays it is apparent that widespread naturalism and the practical turn have each in their own way broke down those doors. Analytic philosophers nowadays are typically very keen to show their work is in good scientific standing, and will have practically interesting consequences for the pressing issues of the day. And what that means is syncretising.

Our political and ethical theories often involve drawing on a mish-mash of sources. First, there is the pertinent philosophical tradition. In analytic philosophy this usually means at least one of Rawls or some other great liberal, Rawls' students, or their students; feminist theory of the recent past; or, in some quarters, libertarian thinkers whose connections to Pinochet were, we are assured, much overstated. These are shown to be able to accommodate or refine views that are taken from the vanguard of very online downwardly mobile frequent social media users ("activists", as academics will refer to them), the common sense of the Euro-American middle class, salient results from legal theory or social psychology, and  increasingly nowadays maybe AI or machine learning in its more socio-politically salient aspects. Along the way one may well get some argument or deduction of one part of the framework for the other -- but the energy, the impetus, comes really from the fact that bourgeois common sense, comprehensible bits of social science, shouty people online, and the recent philosophical tradition of one sort or another, are all felt to be authoritative. The payoff is the reconciliation, the sense that one can have one's cake and eat it.

I have a very similar sense for contemporary epistemology and metaphysics. Once again we admit bourgeois common sense, pertinent sciences - again sometimes psychology, but here also linguistics, statistics, physics, biology (more rarely chemistry I do not know why) - and the authoritative works of highly respected recent philosophers, typically Lewis or Kripke, increasingly Carnap, more rarely Wittgenstein, Brandom, or McDowell. Once again arguments can sometimes be had, but they are really in the service of proving coherence rather than anything akin to deduction from accepted first principles. The emotional pay off is, I believe, the achievement of synthesis. We are in a syncretic age.

And I believe that is why we will soon be forgot. The common sense of the bourgeois (which may not even be that common), social science that shan't survive the replication crisis, AI and machine learning (and thus statistical and reasoning capacities) that are manifestly in their infancy, and the theoretical works of people who happened to be good at placing their students in the latter quarter of the 20th century? I just see zero reason to predict that anyone will care what we make of this. It matters to us - we may well have reason to continue to try and organise it, this is our zeitgeist and anyway attempts to make it make sense will probably reveal its weaknesses and thus generate real progress. But we are a syncretising era working with elements whose nature and interrelations no-one shall care about within the space of a generation. 

This is more hopeful than the polemical claim that the present age is scholastic. I think there is more room for creativity in this activity. The attempt to rationalise new socio-ethical movements in the face of decaying empire mean that we join the Alexandrites in trying to provide comfort to a time that needs it. The failures and frictions of our attempts to syncretise will no doubt reveal anomalies that are worth attending to. But I think it is less likely to be of lasting interest than ambitious derivations from first principles. These sort of projects are designed to gain attractiveness from the inner plausibility of their premises, and thus gain a sort of independence from the immediacies of their age. Descartes, Hume, and Spinoza have far more secure places in history. I think this will be felt as a loss because for whatever reason lasting influence does seem to be sought after.

We must reconcile ourselves to a justly forgotten oblivion.


  1. What killed scholasticism was not the abuse heaped upon it by the neo-Platonists of the renaissance, but the black death. It never really recovered from the loss of its leading figures. And it was hardly a trivial approach to philosophy. After all, nominalism (which is The Truth) was formulated in that movement.

    So I like the Alexandrian analogy a lot. I always thought that the late classical era was founded upon bad understandings of Plato and Aristotle combined with even worse theology.

    1. I also basically like scholasticism so it is a shame to me that the pejorative use is so common! I have a less negative appraisal of late antiquity though. If our little age contributes to human thought anything on the scale of Ptolemaic astronomy and Augustinian theology then we will have more than paid our way.

  2. This is great stuff. I wonder, though, how far the analogy can be pushed. The (philosophy-adjacent) work of the Alexandrine grammarians is certainly of lasting value, no?

    1. Oh yes this seems right, and I wouldn't want to rule out some such being true here! In fact even in OP this is hinted at -- I suspect that present work on AI and machine learning, which is often philosophy adjacent or even just done by philosophers, will have lasting impact. It's not all doom and gloom!

    2. Oh and thank you for the kind words :)

  3. The nebulously defined activism paranoia feels like a killer of thought too.

    1. It's somewhat overstated as an influence in the public discourse, I think, because it is obviously much more flashy than the humdrum day to day work of the field. Looking at latest issues of fancy journals in general philosophy (e.g. or even political philosophy specifically (e.g. the influence is minimal to non-existent.

  4. Thanks for bringing up my article! Re: the comment on decolonial and black philosophy, I had actually tried to write that sentence so as to avoid passing any judgment on it myself! All I meant to imply there was that continental philosophers appeal to these traditions as areas of continued relevance for continental philosophy when for the most part they're separate traditions.

    And maybe I've just been too addled by too much exposure to Great Philosoxpher Theory for my own good, but I can't say I'm quite ready to resign myself/our era to pure forgettable syncretism. I do think there's a chance we get some really novel, good philosophy sooner rather than later!

  5. Wasn't Kant also a great syncretist - of empiricist and rationalist philosophical traditions, and also the natural science of his day-? And yet he is remembered. Perhaps whether or not a philosopher is remembered really depends on whether they produce a dull, obedient, predictable, paint-by-numbers synthesis of surrounding influences, or a profoundly reconceived, vital, creative one.
    Very thought-provoking piece - thank you.

  6. I find Plotinus and Iamblichus endlessly fascinating. I think you're right that this is where we're at. I don't think that's a bad thing. I'm probably one of the very few analysts who finds endless depths of wisdom in Plotinus, though I read him more naturalistically, not as an antiquarian.


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